The weather forecast for the day of our heli-hiking expedition was promising, but when we first arrived at NZ Glacier Guides’ base in Franz Josef township, the cloud shrouding the mountains was stubbornly refusing to lift.
In past years, we have tinkered around the lower reaches of New Zealand‘s world famous glaciers, but I have always longed to venture higher. However, we’ve never really allocated enough time to allow for weather that doesn’t behave according to plan. On this occasion, we saved several days’ driving by flying Air NZ from Gisborne to Christchurch where we picked up a JUCY Rental at the airport and drove at a leisurely pace down the West Coast of the South Island, giving ourselves a generous window of opportunity to fly onto the glacier.
We waited in a state of high excitement and suspense, watching the hearty-looking guides in red shirts and shorts with climbing ropes, pitons, and two-way radios hanging off them as they prepared for their various expeditions.
About midday, the white duvet tucked so snuggly into the valley, miraculously thinned and vanished to reveal the Southern Alps in all their snowy mid-winter splendour, allowing the pilot to whisk us high up the glacier to the ‘Pinnacles’ with our guide Tim. The reality of finally standing on the mighty river of ice was breath taking… literally. I was so entranced by the dazzling white landscape, I had to remind myself to start breathing again.
After Tim made a thorough check of our boots, crampons, poles, and protective clothing, we spent an enchanting four hours heli-hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Swinging his massive pick axe to recut steps and remove hazards, Tim led us deep into a maze of blue marble crevasses so narrow our chunky-booted, cramponed feet had to learn the ‘pin-step’ – shuffling one foot forward and then bringing the other one up behind it. At the same time, we had to practise a form of contortion, rotating the upper body 180 degrees to be slim enough to squeeze through the tightest gaps. In some places, we were literally kissing the glacier walls. It was a surreal and slightly unnerving experience, exploring the chilly intestines of a glacier that moved at the rate of one to two metres a day.
Tim guided us up ice staircases with fixed lines, between jagged peaks that looked like stiffly-beaten egg white, to the highest point of our climb, directly below the icefall where the glacier fractures and tumbles in massive chunks over the edge of steep terrain. We heard the occasional crack and boom as the millions-of-years-old ice river strained and groaned, grinding its way down the valley. I had visions of becoming a human sandwich wedged inside two enormous slices of ice.
As the sun rose higher in the sky and we warmed up with the exertion of the climb, we began to strip off layers of merino wool and our Glacier Guides jackets, over-pants, beanies, and mittens. Tim’s shorts and T-shirt did not seem out-of-place after all… even in mid- winter.
The pace was quite leisurely, with Tim stopping en-route for photographs and to educate us about the glacier.
The Franz Josef – named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865 – descends from a height of 3,000m above sea level to 350m in as little as 11kms. Moving at a rate of one to two metres a day in the winter and three to four metres a day in the summer, it’s the world’s steepest and fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier.
Shaped like a bowl at the top with a neve area of 32-square-km and an overall size of 35km2, the Franz Josef is New Zealand’s fourth largest glacier. It’s also one of the most accessible glaciers on the planet, terminating at 350m above sea level just 18km from the sea. Each year, an average of 30-40m of snow accumulates at the top of the glacier, the weight of which forces the ice downhill.
Despite advances in 1983 and 1999, overall, the Franz Josef has retreated about three kilometres since the late 1880s. Since 2008, the glacier has been in major retreat mode, losing 800 metres in length. In 2012, a dramatic change occurred on the glacier. A hole in the ice resulted in the loss of over 250m of ice from the terminal face in just over 12 months.
As we continued to enjoy heli-hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier we also learned that glacier guiding is New Zealand’s oldest adventure tourism industry, pioneered in the early 20th century by brothers Peter and Alec Graham of Franz Josef.
Tim also told us the origins of the Maori name for the glacier, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere – the Tears of the Ice Maiden, a legend handed down to him by Ngai Tahu, the kaitiaki or guardians of the land.
Hine Hukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe was a less experienced climber than Hine Hukatere and one day, an avalanche swept him to his death. Hine Hukatere was broken-hearted and her many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
After a spectacular afternoon on the ice, the throbbing sound of chopper blades filled the valley. We lifted off as the sun began to fall from the sky and the snowy peaks turned pink and gold in the sunset. Below us, I could see a team of guides preparing tracks for the next day.
Within five minutes we were back at Glacier Guides Base where we soaked in hot pools surrounded by rainforest and birdsong, the perfect finale to an unforgettable day heli-hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Contributing Editor Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer, journalist and sub-editor from Gisborne, New Zealand, with 20 years’ experience in newspaper and freelance work. Check out her work at www.just-write.co.nz and Tyerman’s Travels Facebook.